Joelle Aflalo: Breaking Through

There has been talk of “breaking the glass ceiling” for decades and, while many advances have been made, there is still much to do. Women are still underrepresented in the business world and, perhaps most importantly, in the philanthropic world. Luckily, Joelle Aflalo serves as proof that women can not only succeed in male-dominated circles but also turn around and help others succeed as well.

Aflalo has made a name for herself in the European business world, specifically in Luxembourg, where she currently lives. The highly respected businesswoman is a founding member and general manager of Gestman SA and a founding member of Cofidom-Gestman Sarl, regulated businesses established in Luxembourg that specialize in corporate structuring and investment engineering. Through Aflalo’s hard work, tenacity, and business acumen, she has been able to grow these companies — by extension making “Joelle Aflalo” a name commonly heard and revered in Luxembourg’s business world.

While Aflalo’s immense business successes certainly set her apart, perhaps more impressive is her dedication to philanthropy. In addition to sitting on the boards of many foundations, Aflalo is the principal benefactor of the Matanel Foundation, an organization that provides an innovative approach to solving real world problems in Israel. It was an initial meeting with the great Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz that led to the creation of the foundation; as Rabbi Steinsaltz pointed to the real needs that existed in Israel, that needed to be remedied. And so, in 2006, Aflalo joined together with Gad Boukobza and Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz to officially form Matanel, an Israel-based philanthropic organization with programming in Israel, Africa, South America, and Europe; the foundation supports dozens upon dozens of projects and initiatives that work to make education accessible to all, help those living in poverty, provide opportunities to those living in the geographic and social periphery, and promoting Jewish culture and identity.

Through the Matanel Foundation, Aflalo supports initiatives that provide scholarships to create educational opportunities for adults and teach leadership and civic responsibility to youth. In her quest to build people up and provide opportunities, Aflalo and her foundation also promote innovative and effective solutions to social, educations, cultural, environmental, scientific, and economic problems.

But what’s perhaps most impressive about Matanel and Aflalo’s visionary thinking, is the innovation that it exercises through its projects. The organization serves as an incubator; as a platform for start-ups in the world of philanthropy. Matanel chooses initiatives that are either produced for them via proposal or that they themselves pro-actively seek out. As an incubator, Matanel helps people progress in society; by taking risks that no government agency ever will. But what’s perhaps most beautiful and unique is the process of how Matanel works in effectuating the changes it does in Israeli society.

Recognizing that philanthropic resources will never be able to compete with government resources, the foundation encourages pilot and startup initiatives and ensures high quality project managers are designated to spearhead their respective initiative, and are given guidance, counsel and mentorship along the way. Many of Matanel’s initiatives are spearheaded by young idealistic activists who want to change an industry for the better. Therefore, through her work with Matanel, Aflalo has effectively proven that philanthropy need not simply be viewed as a distribution of monies, but rather as a collective partnership between a foundation and activists on the ground level. In doing so, she has effectively redefined the very notion of the traditional definition of the word.

As Aflalo stands high in a world majority-controlled by men (both in the worlds of business and philanthropy), it is especially empowering that she works to ensure opportunities are provided to people regardless of income, religiousness, or skin color. For instance, Matanel supports a farming program in Panama that works to bring families over the poverty line and ensure they have enough food. Matanel also provides many scholarship opportunities to Ethiopian-Israeli children, many of whom are not given the same chances as their white cohorts. And Matanel strives to bridge gaps between different religions, as well as different religious groups within Judaism, creating an interfaith dialogue that will result in improving the welfare of humankind. Aflalo finds it incredibly rewarding to work with Jews and non-Jews, men and women, and wealthy and needy.

This eye toward acceptance of all people is certainly reflective of Aflalo’s background. Born in Fes, Morocco, Aflalo lived in Belgium before moving to Luxembourg. Through her travels, Aflalo has seen how important it is to embrace other peoples and cultures, while also maintaining your own identity.

According to Aflalo, by supporting leadership programming and civic mindedness for Israeli youth, Matanel is strengthening Israeli culture, empowering these young men and women to identify with their own country, rather than see to emulate others. They learn to be their own people and part of that is maintaining a strong Jewish identity. It is Matanel’s unique incubator model that affords these young men and women the opportunity to not grow dependent on philanthropic generosity, but rather develop and grow together with Matanel’s help and assistance along the way.

This is not to say there is just one Jewish identity. “Of course we say we are united, but we are united with our differences,” Aflalo said, stressing that our different ways of practicing Judaism add color and beauty to our religion and community.

In order to help expand Jewish learning and the Jewish sense of community, Aflalo is very active philanthropically with the Conference of European Rabbis, a union of more than 700 Jewish religious leaders in Europe. She also is a friend and longtime supporter of Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, who, in addition to being on the Matanel board of directors, is world-renowned for his scholarship and for his work to make Jewish education as broadly available as possible.

And it is no secret that women are not often seen as leaders in the Jewish community; for this reason, Aflalo’s work is all the more remarkable. She has gained the respect and trust of the Conference of European Rabbis as she supports the organization’s endeavors. She is not a woman sitting meekly in the back of the room, but a woman who has ideas and dreams and works to see them come to fruition.

Too often, women are seen as “the weaker sex,” but Aflalo has thrown that notion on its head. She is not a “damsel in distress,” but one of the relief workers who is saving lives through education, financial assistance, collaboration and hope. Aflalo serves as an impeccable role model to the young women of the world: You can be a successful businesswoman and a successful humanitarian; your gender does not define you.

Mrs. Joelle Aflalo with Rabbi Adin Steinsaltz, who inspired the creation of The Matanel Foundation
Mrs. Joelle Aflalo, a principal patron of the Conference of European Rabbis, speaking at its gala dinner at the Jewish Museum of Berlin in 2013.

The name of Aflalo’s principal foundation Matanel, literally translates to “a gift from God.” In that way, the chosen name of her foundation is an expression of her humility. That it is not us who give, when it comes to charity. But rather, it is God. For we are only the conduits and intermediaries through which this giving can occur. As the Jewish people find ourselves in unchartered waters with unprecedented spikes in the level of Semitic incidents reported in Europe; a rise in the global BDS movement which amounts to nothing more than a veiled form of anti-Semitism; may we pray this Rosh Hashanah that God cultivates more angels in the form of philanthropists like Joelle Aflalo, to carry out God’s wishes. For if the world had more leading philanthropists of Joelle Aflalo’s stature, we would surely be living in a world far safer, greater and prosperous for the Jewish people.

About the Author
Zachary Silver is a committed pro-Israel activist from West Hartford, Connecticut. A graduate of Brandeis University, Silver is the founder of Brandeis' Tamid Israel Investment club chapter. He is involved in various communal engagements seeking to promote the State of Israel.